WASHINGTON, D.C. – Guatemala’s claim to more than half of neighboring Belize has gone on way too long, say Belizean officials, warning that the ongoing territorial dispute is an “existential threat” to the former British colony.
Belize is slightly larger than El Salvador but has fewer than 350,000 inhabitants, making it the most sparsely populated country in Central America. It is also the isthmus’ only English-speaking republic.
For nearly two centuries, Guatemala has claimed the 12,272 square kilometers of Belize south of the Río Sibún as its own. The controversy dates to 1821, when Guatemala gained independence from Spain, and England was occupying what later became Belize.
Earlier this year, the Guatemalan government outraged people in Belize by introducing a new passport that depicted a map of Central America on its cover with Belize and Guatemala separated by a dotted line – not a solid line indicating an international border.
Now Belize is furious again, because of Guatemala’s failure in October to abide by an agreement that the two countries would each hold a referendum among their respective citizens on whether to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
“We were supposed to hold a referendum by mutual agreement on Oct. 6, but earlier in the year, Guatemala withdrew from that decision and it didn’t happen,” said Néstor Méndez, Belize’s ambassador to the United States. “This has now put the process in the freezer.”
In late November, Costa Ricans celebrated a world court ruling that required Nicaragua to withdraw entirely from Isla Calero, a wetlands area in northeastern Costa Rica. The court ordered Nicaragua to remove all civilians, police and security forces from the disputed region along the Río San Juan, which forms a natural border between the two countries.
Whether Belize and Guatemala can likewise solve their differences at the world court in the Netherlands is doubtful at this point, though that’s exactly what Jeremy Browne, Britain’s Foreign Office minister for Latin America, is urging.
“The U.K. supports the ICJ route as a means to finding a long-term and sustainable resolution which is acceptable to both states,” Browne said recently. “The resolution of the territorial dispute continues to be long-term priority for the U.K. This agreement is an important step towards increasing stability, development and trade in the region.”
Known as British Honduras until 1973, Belize gained full independence in 1981. Guatemala established diplomatic relations with its neighbor 10 years later, though the majority of Belizeans – many of whom are bilingual – oppose the idea of becoming part of Guatemala.
In 2008, Belize’s prime minister, Dean Barrow, said resolving the border dispute was his country’s biggest priority. In December 2008, he signed an agreement submitting the issue to the world court, with the referendum to be held simultaneously in Belize and Guatemala on Oct. 6, 2013. But, of course, that never happened.
Méndez, speaking to The Tico Times earlier this month, said the status quo is not sustainable for Belize.
“We want to get this resolved as soon as possible,” he said. “Our national parks are under siege, some of the most pristine forests in Central America are being logged out, while exotic birds are being extracted – mostly by Guatemalan settlers who cross the border illegally.”
On the Guatemalan side of that 150-mile-long border are several communities living in extreme poverty, Méndez said.
“Given the lack of opportunities there, they are harvesting all the resources from our national parks and engaging in illegal logging and panning for gold,” he added.
Méndez said these settlers are degrading Chiquibul National Park, which encompasses one-seventh of Belize’s territory.
One of the principal economic engines of Belize is ecotourism, and ecotourism depends on the environment, Méndez said, adding that “the destruction of our national parks is eroding our national assets, and the longer this goes on, the worse it gets.”
“Although we have some confidence-building measures in place to manage relations along the border, as part of that regime Guatemala has the obligation to dissuade its nationals from coming over. But they’re not, and we don’t have the manpower to patrol such an extensive border,” he said.
John Saldivar, Belize’s defense minister, told The Tico Times that the Belize Defense Forces has about 1,200 men in uniform, and its annual budget is $5 million.
“The border is not very accessible. It’s dense mountain terrain,” he said. “Our biggest constraint is inserting our soldiers into the forest. There’s no road access to the border, except at the border crossing. To get anywhere, you have to be inserted [by helicopter] or hike in. But we don’t have any helicopters.”
Nevertheless, Saldivar doesn’t see any chance of Guatemala attacking Belize over the border.
“They do have a far bigger army than we do, but regional and international arrangements make it virtually impossible for them to have a military [solution],” the defense minister said. “They’re under pressure from the international community to find a civil way to settle the problem.”
Méndez said that Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, does not want to run the risk of the world court ruling against his country – hence Guatemala’s decision to back out at the last minute.
“He’s a decorated general, and his intimate proximity with the Guatemalan Army does in fact put an additional burden on him,” Méndez said. “Because the Guatemalan constitution requires that any definitive solution to their claim on Belize has to be approved by the people, they could not take the issue to the ICJ and then submit the ruling of the ICJ to the people to see if they’d approve it. Therefore, the two countries agreed to overcome this hurdle by holding this referendum simultaneously. [But] being the president who finally loses the claim would not be very attractive to him.”
Meanwhile, Saldivar said the situation isn’t entirely a negative one.
“Every day, hundreds of Guatemalan children cross the border to go to school in Belize. Our schools are superior, and they can learn in English, which is an advantage for them,” he said, adding that despite the ongoing dispute between the two countries, “We have an informal policy to let them come over with just an ID.”